Why is it that pop, on the whole, just doesn't do history well? Why does it either shy away or treat it with an appalling sledgehammer unsubtlety?
Maybe it's that old chestnut of Rockist fundamentalism, the idea that pop's essential newness - as a phenomenon of the last half-century - somehow prevents it from even the slightest acknowledgement that there was human life previously. But there's also a wholly justified and understandable fear of reinvoking the worst aspects of prog - its whingeing nostalgia and self-pitying negative view of absolutely everything, which reached its nadir with Pink Floyd's The Final Cut, to my knowledge the only previous album themed around the First World War - and the most remarkable thing about Artists' Rifles is how completely, and superbly, it avoids these pitfalls.
The essence of this album isn't in its theme, though: it's in the details, the sonic background, the elements of the experience of war that those with less subtlety would consider unimportant. It's in the gunfire of "1.16", a harbinger of what is to follow. It's in "No Closure", a litany of the horrifying mundanities you're surrounded by during wartime, the grim everyday backdrop, the land that is the backdrop to this conflict. It's in the dawn of "A Return To The Sea", returning to the place where you have previously travelled for pleasure, but now have to visit for the defence of your country, even if you know you will probably not return alive. It's in the chimes and tingles of "1.22", which sound like the last chilling sounds you hear from the homeland before the real battles begin. It's in the wide open spaces of "You And John Are Birds", the way the guitar is so deliberately underplayed because anything louder would upset the beauty of the countryside in which the war is being fought, provide an extra piece of aggression which is the last thing this battlefield needs. It's in the airiness and beauty of "The Index", remembering the past Romanticism and desperate failed elegance of those now fighting, recounting nature in the face of death.
It's there in "1.50", which seems to herald the onset of the real battles, tolling the bell for those who will never come home. It's in the cellos and la-las of "Century Schoolbook", whose very title evokes the past innocence of those who are now fighting, recalling the simplicity and joy of childhood, back when such a conflict seemed unthinkable. It runs through the resignation of "Password", realising that you'll only be remembered as a name on a cenotaph, an insignificant footnote both in life and death, as though perhaps you never really mattered. It concludes with several minutes of ordered noise, the sound of the battlefield arranged musically, the apocalypse of the guitar.
And then there's "Artists' Rifles" itself, which seems to acknowledge ruefully that, yes, it was worth doing, we weren't quite that anonymous and meaningless, we were artists, we perhaps represented a lost cultural future, we were a generation sacrificed, but it was something we had to do.
Some, of course, will say that these are elements of our past recalled throughout British life; what need has pop to remember them? But we're reminded of these moments much less than we were 30 years ago; Blackadder Goes Forth was more than 10 years ago now, and the Cenotaph service and other official commemorations are tainted by their associations with reactionary military types and the readership of the Daily Telegraph (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/telegraph.htm) too much to really reach and affect most younger British people. The album seems to remind us of these moments from history, without for a moment becoming overblown or self-important or self-defensive, at a time when we're in greater danger than ever of forgetting them.
This is, I guess, what war sounds and feels like, especially a war which came at a time of innocence and complacency, a feeling that the happiness of the still-young 20th Century would never be interrupted. Every aspect of the experience lies within, the sheer depth and breadth of its emotional impact. It's an intensely descriptive and evocative record, especially for an event in such distant past, which for many of us seems inaccessible and hidden by the all-pervasiveness of an obsessively modern popular culture. Hearing Artists' Rifles I imagine myself to be there, and that must be the highest of all compliments.
Robin Carmody, 3rd October 2000
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